ON THE GULF OF MEXICO - Twenty miles off Naples, Fla., the last of the high-rise, high-rent beachfront condominiums disappeared over the horizon behind the boat wake.
The last big shrimping boats were about 25 miles out. A few other sport fishing boats in the distance disappeared at 40 miles out.
Fifty miles off Naples we were all alone. The horizon line was blue-on-blue, with the only distinction a few puffy white clouds on the sky side. It was 82 degrees. The water was 75 degrees. A gentle breeze was blowing up from Cuba.
That’s where Capt. Ted Gibson cut the throttle on the twin 250-horsepower Mercury outboards and the boat slowed to a stop. He released a big anchor off the bow and positioned the boat where he wanted it over 115 feet of water.
Gibson, proprietor of Nauti-Gal Fishing Adventures out of Naples, worked with rapid efficiency, cutting frozen Spanish sardines and squid for bait and hooking up lines for our group of six. As he baited hooks he gave us a quick, no-nonsense lesson on what was about to happen.
“This will be the total opposite of what you’re used to fishing. ... These aren't Minnesota walleyes. Don't try to set the hook. Don’t hold on and enjoy the ride and let them take line. When you know they are on, start reeling and pull up as hard as you can,’’ Gibson said. “If they get down into the rock at the bottom, you’re going to lose. He’s going to cut you off. Then we lose all this tackle and waste a lot of time.”
The warning seemed a little overkill, I remember thinking. Typical fishing guide hype, I figured. These are just red grouper, after all, how tough can 20 pounds of ugly orange fish be?
Gibson dialed up the drag until it was nearly impossible for us to pull out any of the 80-pound test line. Then he tossed the first weighted rig overboard and let it sink to the bottom.
The first fish hit as Gibson was bating the third angler’s hook.
“Pull up! Lift, lift, lift!’’ Gibson yelled as husky Chris Volner of Savage, Minn., struggled to hold the rod tip up and keep the grouper out of the rocks. “Now reel, reel reel!”
“This is cool!’’ Volner said as he struggled to keep the rod tip up as it bent nearly 90 degrees down.
Then the second fish hit.
“Guns! Guns! Guns!’’ Gibson yelled, a bellowing order for Mike Hughlett of Minneapolis to use his arm muscles and overpower the fish. “OK, you’ve got him now, you can back off.”
“Take my picture!’’ Hughlett demanded. “I want my dad to know I actually caught a fish!”
Gibson apologized for his seemingly overbearing lessons.
“I yell like a coach at a game because that’s what guys listen to. Otherwise, it gets lost in the excitement,’’ Gibson said.
“But don’t act like a monkey on meth” while you are reeling, Gibson said. “You don’t have to go crazy. Just pull up and reel.”
Then a third fish hit. Then a fourth. There were people laughing and screaming and reeling on both sides of the 29-foot boat.
Fishing frenzy and fun
As it turns out, a 20-pound red grouper can be pretty darn tough. It’s not the rowdy, thrashing, jumping battle of a big pike or muskie or barracuda. Think more lake trout on steroids. A grouper that knows it’s been hooked just pulls as hard as he can, down, and it takes everything in a grown man’s body to get them turned around and coming up.
“Guns! Guns! Guns!’’ Gibson yelled again. He seemed to know before we did when a fish was on by eying up the tips of our rods.
At times the captain was having a hard time keeping bait on our hooks as the fish kept cooperating. If the fishing slowed, Gibson would let out more anchor line and let us drift downwind to a slightly different spot.
Several times we had four or five fish on at once, then there would be a lull.
“Slow down, meth monkey!” Gibson joked as one of our group was struggling to reel and pump. Gibson had just met us yet he’d already come up with the perfect nickname for a member of our group.
While the Northland was suffering through a Polar Vortex curtain call last weekend we basked in the sun, catching red grouper, porgies, yellowtail snapper and mangrove snapper - all tasty-eating saltwater species. But not all were in season or of legal length. Gibson kept us legal and offered a little naturalist instruction along the way. We saw giant sea turtles sunning on the surface and various sea birds. (Some of his trips see manatees and dolphins, although we didn’t.)
Mostly we caught grouper - big ones - on the best red grouper day Nauti-Gal had seen so far this season, with an average size nearing 20 pounds.
Nauti-Gal Fishing Adventures holds a set of NOAA reef and pelagic permits that allows Gibson to fish in U.S waters beyond the Florida state line nine miles offshore. He’s been doing it for five years now on his 29-foot Intrepid offshore boat, a perfect winter balance to his summer guiding out of a lodge in Alaska.
“It works pretty well,’’ the Hudson, Wis., native said of his year-round fishing career. His Florida operations run September through May.
All-told we caught more than 30 fish in our day on the Gulf, including a dozen keeper red grouper over 20 inches. The fish ranged from a couple pounds to more than 20 pounds each.
Best of all it was a perfect day, with sunny skies and nearly calm waters.
“You guys did good,’’ Gibson said as he washed off his fillet board and fist-bumped everyone in our group before heading home. “Come back anytime.”
For more information
Go to nauti-galsfishing.com or call (239) 494-0832. Offshore charter fishing packages run from $695 for a 4.5 hour trip for six anglers to $1,275 for an 8.5-hour trip for six. Gibson also offers shorter, less expensive fishing excursions for closer-in species and sightseeing tours for dolphins.
More on Naples area fishing
Naples, in southwest Florida, offers a variety of freshwater and saltwater fishing in winter. You can fish the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico offshore; cast a line from a beach, pier or riverbank; or explore the canals and nearby Everglades with a charter or guide. Lake Trafford is full of bass and crappie, while the backcountry channels hold snook and redfish.
In the Gulf of Mexico, there’s grouper, snapper, king mackerel, tarpon, snook, mullet, bluefish and barracuda. There are several intentionally placed wrecks underwater that offer fertile fishing, or you can head to deep water like we did. Hiring a guide will give you a good shot at a big fish, and avoiding tidal, weather and sea problems. But you can bring your own boat as well or rent one at one of the many marinas in Naples.
You also can cast a line from the Naples Pier, with its 1,000-foot boardwalk, or fish the canals from land. Fishing from the beach is usually good at dawn and dusk, and Naples has several bait and tackle shops for angling supplies, whether you're into fly fishing, plugs or live bait.
Collier County offers a free “Boating and Angling Guide,” which also lists over 50 area guides that specialize in offshore and backcountry fishing.
Go to paradisecoast.com for more on the Naples area amenities.